When Craig Smith’s coaching career is over, the Runnin’ Utes’ first-year skipper should consider taking a job with Optimist International.

He’s been that positive, even in the face of one excruciating loss after another amidst a grinding, relentless Pac-12 schedule.

After the Utes fell 80-77 to uber-talented Oregon on Saturday night at the Huntsman Center in front of an announced crowd of 7,756, Utah’s 11th loss in its last 12 games, Smith was unabashedly upbeat in his descriptions of the team’s morale and potential.

And for good reason.

“They are playing with a lot of spirit. And that is a hard thing to define. Spirit is an amazing thing. And I think you can feel it. ... Something really good is happening right now, and we will see where it goes.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith

The Utes (9-15, 2-12) have been “right there,” in Smith’s words, in a good majority of their 12 league losses, have climbed out of the Pac-12 cellar, and have show they cannot be taken lightly by any team in the league the rest of the season. Four of Utah’s losses have been by five points or fewer.

Smith is not being delusional, and neither are guards Marco Anthony and Gabe Madsen when they say, as they did after their second-half comeback against the Ducks (15-7) fell just short, that better days lie ahead.

“We are figuring this thing out, for sure,” Madsen said after scoring a team-high 19 points, including five 3-pointers.

“They are playing with a lot of spirit. And that is a hard thing to define. Spirit is an amazing thing. And I think you can feel it,” Smith said. “That’s what I told the guys after. I don’t know how to describe it, but something really good is happening right now, and we will see where it goes.”

A half-game behind California (2-11) for 10th place in the league standings, the Utes now have a couple days off to regroup and retool. They play at eighth-place Colorado (14-9, 6-7) on Saturday in a game that appears to be quite winnable.

The Buffs broke a three-game losing streak with an 86-63 win over Oregon State last Saturday.

Utes, Buffaloes on the air

Utah (9-15, 2-12) vs. Colorado (14-9, 6-7)

Saturday, 6 p.m. MST

At the CU Events Center, Boulder, Colorado

TV: Pac-12 Networks

Radio: ESPN 700 AM

“We just gotta keep growing and keep getting better,” Smith said. “We have a week before we play Colorado, and we will keep fine-tuning. I am really, really tremendously proud of our effort and our team. We just gotta keep chopping.”

In almost every loss, one thing or another has kept the Utes from tasting victory. On Saturday, it was probably below average free-throw shooting, at least by Utah’s standards. That, and Oregon just made some incredibly difficult and long 3-point shots.

“They have some elite shotmakers,” Smith said. “I mean, some of the shots they hit were just ridiculous.”

Utah missing eight free throws wasn’t all that ridiculous, considering the misfires came on 23 attempts. It’s just that free-throw shooting, as Smith lamented afterwards, has been something the Utes have “hung our hat on this year.”

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The Utes dropped from fourth to sixth in the country in free-throw shooting percentage, and are now at 79.6% (336 of 422). A couple more makes Saturday could have meant the difference between losing and pulling off an unexpected win.

Will those come in February?

“I don’t have a crystal ball. Nobody in here has it. Our guys don’t have it. But something is going on with this team in the way that we are playing, and the way that we are approaching (games), and the way that we are growing together,” Smith said.

“And I am proud of them. But we know it is a bottom-line business, and they just gotta keep trucking, and I know they will.”

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